By Marc Normandin
The Dodgers have developed a reputation for buying and acquiring everything they need, but despite all of the spending, there is one area they are lacking in. At least, relatively speaking. Manager Don Mattingly reminded the baseball world of that fact this past weekend, when MLB.com's Ken Gurnick reported that Mattingly is considering having dynamic second-year outfielder Yasiel Puig bat leadoff in 2014.
You're forgiven if your first thought is somewhere along the lines of an eyebrow-raised "...Him?" After all, Puig stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 245 pounds, and looks every ounce of it when he swings a bat and connects. He's not known for his patience, with walks in just over eight percent of his plate appearances -- a good, but not great, rate. His .391 on-base percentage is impressive, and was second on the Dodgers behind Hanley Ramirez in 2013, but it also had the benefit of 11 hit by pitches and a .383 batting average on balls in play to help power that .391 number.
At the same time, a question Mattingly has to answer is what led him to Puig to begin with: Who else is going to lead off, if not Puig? Going down the line of Dodgers' batters makes it clear. Carl Crawford seems like a leadoff guy, since he's speedy with inconsistent power, but he also owns a .308 on-base percentage over the last three years and just a .332 mark in his career, with walks just over five percent of the time. Shortstop Hanley Ramirez is a fine choice: He owns a career .373 on-base percentage, is coming off of one of the top offensive seasons in the National League that went relatively unnoticed due to injury that cost him almost half the year, and, even if you just average his last three years, comes out to a far more tolerable line than Crawford, thanks in large part to a .345 OBP. Ramirez is arguably the Dodgers' top overall batter, though, and with that in mind should either bat second to get more plate appearances and drive in whomever is leading off, or third for more traditional reasons that Mattingly will likely employ.
After that, the only thing obvious about the choices is that they don't fit the role. Adrian Gonzalez would be one of the game's slowest leadoff hitters, and while his numbers might fit the bill, especially since he seems to have lost some of the home run power that earned him his long-term extension to begin with, let's ground ourselves in reality and recognize that it isn't happening. Matt Kemp, like Ramirez, is a much better fit for the middle of the lineup, assuming he's healthy. If he's not healthy -- either because of his surgically repaired ankle or his shoulder that also saw a surgeon's scalpel -- you don't want him near the top of the order. If you could guarantee that the A.J. Ellis who produced a .373 on-base percentage in 2012 was the one who would show up this year, despite his catcher's speed, you could argue he deserved to lead off for the Dodgers. Since he batted .238/.318/.364 last season, though, it's a little difficult to justify such an unorthodox move.
Last, there's Alexander Guerrero, a Cuban shortstop-turned-second-baseman who is a complete mystery if only because this is his rookie campaign, and he's jumping straight from being an international free agent to a major-league player: even Puig, with his immense talent, spent time in the minors before hitting the bigs. There's also Juan Uribe, whom the Dodgers re-signed for third base, but he's as much of a down-order bat as Ellis due to career inconsistency that's seen him produce quality seasons like 2013, where he produced a 117 OPS+, but also a well below-average career figure of just 85 in the same category.
So, now that we've explained all the reasons why the Dodgers leadoff batter should not be any non-Puig entity, it's time to figure out if Puig can offer something besides being the last man standing. Despite the BABIP issue cited above, there is plenty of reason to believe putting Puig in the leadoff spot is more than just settling because someone has to bat first. In his very limited minor-league time, Puig produced ridiculous BABIP figures, and his bat speed combined with the way he seems to barrel up on the ball no matter where it is suggests that he is going to maintain lofty BABIP figures in the years to come. They might not be quite of the absurd 2013 variety, but if he slapped together a few seasons in a row of .350 or more, it wouldn't be shocking.
Remember, the best hitters are the best hitters for a reason, because they're better than your average slugger; oftentimes, this can mean their BABIP exceeds expectations. Ask Manny Ramirez, whose career BABIP sits at .338, or Joe Mauer, who is currently at .349, or hey, even Puig's teammate Matt Kemp, of the career .352 BABIP. Puig hasn't done enough for us to say with confidence he's one of those guys, but the potential is certainly there: if he "only" bats around .300 with a .360 on-base percentage and power, that's going to be more than enough from the top spot in the lineup.
Whether he can get that kind of OBP with a lessened average is a fair question, of course. Remember the eight-ish percent walk rate cited before? He looked a bit different from July on compared to his season-long stats, once the league started to catch up to him and pitch more carefully and strategically. While it slowed him down overall -- which was going to happen anyway, since he was at an unsustainable, Troutian pace for a month -- it did give him reason to grab a few more walks. While he drew just four in the month of June, he sauntered to first eight times in July, and from July onward collected 32 of his 36 free passes.
That's a 10 percent walk rate, which might not seem like a significant difference from eight percent, but over a full season, for a full-time player leading off, it adds up over the course of 700 or however many plate appearances. Over those last three months and 78 games, it amounted to a .298/.366/.470 line, which looks perfectly fine for leading off in a lineup as loaded as that of the Dodgers. While he needs to improve on the bases -- Puig's aggressiveness led to eight caught stealings against just 11 successful thefts -- if he can get on base consistently and drive in runners with his power, it'll hardly matter if he's not a threat to steal.
We also have to remember that he was a 22-year-old rookie with just 63 minor-league games under his belt last season: There's still room for Puig to grow and improve, possibly even out of the leadoff role. For now, though, he fits that slot better than anyone else in the Dodgers' lineup. Adapting throughout 2013 gave him the patience necessary for the role, and while he has more power than your traditional leadoff batter, it's a good thing for the Dodgers if Puig heads to the plate around 700 times. Puig might not be what you think of when leadoff hitters come to mind, but he's the most logical fit in the Dodgers' lineup at present, and has the potential to be a serious weapon in that role as long as Los Angeles needs him to be. It might not be traditional, but that's what we enjoy about Puig to begin with, isn't it?
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for BaseballProspectus, ESPN and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.